Mixology Month

Rev up your summer cocktails with the freshest mixers.

These past six months of examining the National Day Calendar have made me realize that, for certain causes, certain  awarenesses, the calendar is a brilliant way to get the word out and expand their reach.  For instance, July 1 is National Postal Worker Day, and I think we can all agree that it’s nice to honor these dedicated workers.  However, the calendar is also clearly a place for loonies. Do the nudists of America really expect us all to strip on July 14 for National Nude Day? (Probably not coincidentally, it is the same day as National Tape Measure Day… I do not make this stuff up.) Some of these days have clearly been created by certain groups just to show off how smart they are. I had to look up the meaning of National Yellow Pig Day (July 17), which has something to do with calculus and the number 17. (Even after I looked it up I’m still not sure what that’s about.) And I’m betting not many of you know who Edmund Clerihew Bentley is, yet July 10 is National Clerihew Day, during which you are urged to write a Clerihew –- a very specifically formatted biographical poem. It has four rhyming couplets (aa/bb), must use a person’s name in the first line, must say something about that person and must be humorous. Let try it, shall we?

Leslie Bilderback writes
And sometimes picks fights
Occasionally about food
Or whatever her mood
Okay, well, that was fun, and now I can see why they made it a National Day.    

Although July is the season for grilling and patriotism, there are relatively few such days in this month’s National Day Calendar. There is, however, a lot of booze. So much booze, in fact, that it’s doubtful anything will get done this month. Stay hydrated, everyone, because we have Anisette Day (July 2), Piña Colada Day (July 10), Mojito Day (July 11), Grand Marnier Day (July 14), Daiquiri Day (July 19), Wine and Cheese Day ( July 25) and Scotch Day (July 27). All these boozy days are certainly a clever way for companies to boost sales, though I am a bit worried that national productivity may find itself in a slump as a result. Nevertheless, I have pledged to celebrate the National Calendar this year so, in response, I am offering some homemade cocktail elements for your summer soirées.

Cocktail mixing has taken on a new life in recent years. In fact, bartenders have taken to calling themselves mixologists to emphasize new creative aspects of this vocation that have evolved. No longer is it simply the martini and gin and tonic. In finer restaurants, cocktails — and the unfortunately named “mocktails,” without alcohol — are being paired, as wine has traditionally been, with each course. Unique mixers, fancifully decorated rims, clever garnishes and artfully molded ice cubes are all a part of the cocktail arsenal now. So, to ensure you don’t look like a rookie this summer, I offer not drink recipes, but homemade cocktail ingredients that will boost your cocktail game.

The easiest cocktail mixer to make is simple syrup, which is nothing but equal parts sugar and water. (Combine them and bring the liquid to a boil until the sugar dissolves. That’s it.)  Simple syrup is the reason why drinks taste better at the bar than in your kitchen. It has long been a component of cocktails, making its way into such classics as the old-fashioned, the whiskey sour, the daiquiri, the julep — and many more. But today, the best mixologists are infusing simple syrup with flavors, opening up infinite cocktail possibilities. I love flavored syrups because, not only do they make interesting cocktails possible, they make great homemade sodas. Just combine with soda water and ice for a refreshing offering your guests will really appreciate.  (FYI — designated drivers are really sick of Diet Coke.) I’m giving you below not only my favorite summer soda syrup — strawberry rhubarb — but also lots of variations for you to try. 

The second cocktailing recipe is for homemade bitters. Bitters are another classic bar ingredient, comprised of alcohol flavored with botanical aromatics and herbs. It is designed to bring balance to your cocktail. The bitterness, which varies by brand, enhances the other flavors of the drink and helps align the ingredients, much the way salt and acid work in cooking. There are many bitters on the market, and most keep their ingredient list secret. But homemade bitters are easy to make and, like simple syrup, can be concocted to suit your personal bitter preferences. 

Both of these recipes are just examples. There are hundreds of variations to be made of and I encourage you to experiment. With these in your pantry, your summer barbecue will be the talk of the town.

Syrup and bitters from scratch
Whip yourself up a big batch
With these in your bar
I declare you a star ||||


Strawberry—Rhubarb Syrup
If you have trouble laying your hands on rhubarb, replace it with a full 2 pounds of strawberries, or substitute another tart ingredient, such as raspberry or cranberry. In addition, you can use this same basic recipe with any number of fruit, fruit-and spice or fruit-and-herb combinations. Use your imagination, and get creative. You’ll find some variation ideas after the recipe.


Ingredients

1 pound strawberries, washed, hulled and quartered
1 pound rhubarb, washed and cut into half-inch pieces
1 cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
2 cups water
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon sea salt


Method
1. Combine all ingredients in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce to a low simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has softened to the point of mush. It should take about 20 to 30 minutes.   

2. Place a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl, and line it with cheesecloth. Pour the fruit purée into the strainer and let it sit and drain slowly. For clear syrup, it is best not to force or press the purée free of liquid;  let gravity do it for you. After an hour, if it appears there is still liquid suspended within the pulp, squeeze it gently. Transfer the clear syrup into sterilized jars or bottles, and store in the refrigerator. Syrups should last you through the summer. For longer storage, pack in plastic containers and freeze for up to a year. (Defrost slowly in the refrigerator for best results.)

Here are some of my favorite fruit syrup variations. You may need to adjust the amount of sugar, depending on the ripeness of the fruit: plum–sage, peach–basil, cherry–vanilla, mango–lime, papaya–lemongrass, pineapple–black pepper. Once you start syrup–making, it won’t be long before you come up with your own signature syrup.


Homemade Bitters
This is a basic bitter, close in form to Angostura. But Angostura uses ingredients such as cinchona bark and gentian root — not something you can pick up at Ralphs.  Here I use accessible ingredients, but the end result is equally effective.   If you catch the bitters bug after this, the more exotic elements can be ordered online.


Ingredients
Dried peel of 1 orange (remove with a potato peeler, and set in the sun for a day, or place in a dehydrator or very low-temp oven for an hour or so, until stiff and shriveled)
2 to 3 pieces dried apple or apple skin
6 to 8 pieces dried cherry
1 cinnamon stick, crushed
2 whole cloves
3 to 4 allspice berries, crushed
3 to 4 juniper berries, crushed
3 to 4 coffee beans
2 to 3 cardamom pods, crushed
1 teaspoon cacao nibs, crushed
½ teaspoon coriander seed, crushed
¼ vanilla bean, scraped
1 quart neutral alcohol, grain alcohol or vodka (Rye or bourbon can also be used, but will impart their flavors to the finished product.)
2 to 4 tablespoons simple syrup


Method
1. Combine all ingredients except alcohol and simple syrup in a large, sterilized canning jar. Cover the ingredients with the alcohol, then cover with the top and place in a cool, dark space for 2 weeks. Shake the jar once a day to help distribute the infusion. 

2. After 2 weeks, strain out the contents of the jar, and combine the infused liquid with simple syrup to taste. (The sugar is not to sweeten as much as it is to neutralize the bitterness.)

3. Return to a sterilized jar, and set aside again for another week. At this point the bitters can be used, bottled and shared. 

Go Glamping, Backyard-style

With a little (or a lot) of help, your summer party can be the talk of the town.

The staycation phenomenon spotlighted the pleasures of hanging out inside your home, offering you a chance to relax and unwind in the comfort of your own recliner or bed, where you can get lost in an assortment of Netflix-binging options. And a new trend aims to reintroduce you to your patio, porch, deck and backyard in ways you didn’t think possible.

Now glamping, or luxurious camping — combining a nature experience with lavish furnishings — is hitting closer to home. Backyard barbecues are becoming more extravagant, baby showers more memorable. Birthday sleepovers are celebrated with enchanted flair, and simple family gatherings are benefiting from greater creativity.

Backyard glamping is officially a thing. Just scan Pinterest and see the thousands of images folks are posting of their elaborate thematic setups, their clever use of lighting draped inside and outside of canvas tents that are artfully decorated with throw pillows, Moroccan rugs and hanging chandeliers. Kids’ sleepover parties are enhanced with Martha Stewart–inspired crafts, tasteful design elements encircling the “campfire” (a.k.a. fire pit) and giant outdoor versions of Jenga and Connect Four.

If these extras sound exhausting for the time-crunched host and hostess, don’t worry. A handful of companies are making it easier for clients to throw a backyard glamping experience, because organizing a gathering — no matter how big or small — comes with its own set of stresses. Hosts work with designers to tailor the events (such as bridal showers, graduations, book-club meetings or girls’ night-outs) to be as elaborate or simple as needed. On the day of the event, all the necessary gear and accessories will be delivered and often set up for you. After the shindig, crews pack everything up so there’s no post-party hassle and cleanup.

“We started thinking we would focus on children, but we learned quickly that adults want these kinds of experiences as much as kids do,” says Trish Healy, founder of Studio City–based WonderTent Parties, launched in 2017. Originally from Australia, Healy said the idea for the company was sparked by a request from 13-year-old Celia, a child she and her husband were fostering at the time. Celia’s Christmas wish list included a sleepover, something she had yet to experience. This simple request turned into not just an unforgettable event for Celia (who’s now officially adopted by the couple) but a business opportunity for Healy, who decided to elevate the humble slumber party into a memory-making event.

And who can blame parents when they see kids having fun with their friends in a relatively nondigital manner? In addition to tents, sleeping bags, mattresses and lanterns, parties can include a karaoke machine, popcorn cart, dress-up clothes and more. Adults, says Healy, have options to kick it up a notch with five-star experiences that have included gourmet dining on low tables, wine or tequila tastings, massage tables, sushi sampling, a Tiki bar, tarot card readings and more.

Of course, low-key requests are also popular. Healy once organized a Father’s Day backyard glamping party for a few families that involved a dinner, a movie and tents. “The families brought the dads’ favorite recliners outside for them to watch the movie,” she says, explaining that clients often personalize their parties with items they already own. “Backyard glamping is all about creating a shared experience with others.”

Another company that serendipitously fell into serving backyard glampers is Los Angeles–based Joymode, which has been offering camping bundles for folks wanting to camp — without the ruggedness and/or the gear hassle — at such far-flung destinations as Joshua Tree and the Pacific Coast. Joymode drops off all the gear for you at the campsite (yes, you have to set it up yourself) and picks it up afterward. In addition to warm canvas tents, they supply rugs, air mattresses, sturdy camp chairs and other accoutrements to make your campsite the envy of the others.

Realizing that a campsite can be a close as a client’s own backyard, Joymode started offering home glamping bundles which can, according to Molly Schmidt, the company’s head of merchandise, “take an ordinary weekend or sleepover party and turn it into a magical event because you are outdoors. You can do all the traditional camping things — roast marshmallows, tell ghost stories, snuggle in your sleeping bags — but you’re not far from home. It’s the ultimate in low-tech comfort.”

Camping gear is bulky and often needed only sporadically, so renting from a company that will supply and sanitize everything is a popular choice, says Schmidt. If a person has never set up a tent before, detailed but simple instructions are included for novices. Rental products are intensely curated so folks will experience the crème de la crème of blenders, projection screens, Go-Pro cameras, even TheraGun professional massagers. “This is a way for many of our clients to get access to these items and test them out,” says Schmidt. Clients often suggest items for the company to carry; a big request lately is baby gear available for traveling parents who don’t want to lug all the extras with them. Likewise, Healy has had clients who have fallen in love with certain items (usually cushions and tableware along with kids’ products) and want to purchase them outright. “That’s another area we never thought about before,” she says.

But cool accessories aside, the experience is what really matters. When her preschool daughter’s annual camping trip to Big Pines was rained out earlier this year, Mary Everard of West Los Angeles canceled her Joymode gear delivery but decided to rent a backyard tent package that included a projector and screen for Disney movies. “It was really fun, we made a weekend of it,” she says, explaining that she wanted her two older children (ages 3 and 5) to have good memories of these “little things that are out of the ordinary that they did with their family when they were young.”

At its core, backyard glamping is about human connection, explains Healy. “We are living in an age when people are a little removed from each other, even with social media,” she says. “This is about bringing friends and family together in a loving home environment where you can create amazing experiences. It’s a natural extension of the comfort and warmth of your home — and how wonderful that you want to share that with friends and others around you.”

Should You Backyard Glamp?

Hosting an event in your own backyard has pros and cons, says Kelsey Sheofsky, the founder of Shelter Co., a luxury pop-up camping and outdoor-events supplier based in Northern California. In addition to managing large events, Sheofsky has overseen numerous backyard kid’s parties, bar mitzvahs and 50th birthdays as well as large weddings and other formal events.

Smaller events are easier to plan, and “when you are in your backyard, you are on familiar ground,” she adds. Crowd control is not the only issue with large events. “There are lots of considerations and costs, especially things you might not automatically think about, like landscape lighting, parking and how a septic system will hold up,” she says.

For overnight events, there is always a fear that guests won’t enjoy the experience. “People are always concerned, saying that ‘My family doesn’t camp!’ They don’t like being outdoors” says Sheofsky. “But 100 percent of the time, we get people telling us that they have had the best sleep in years in our tents. So warm and cozy. Don’t be afraid if you think you don’t have an outdoor crowd — they will really enjoy themselves.”

Thinking about a summer backyard glamping event? Designers and party-planners say to let your own creativity be your guide, especially when you want to keep the budget low but fun factor high. Keep the audience in mind, whether it’s adolescent girls, middle-school boys, members of your book club or out-of-town family members.

In general, look around your closets and garage for items that can — with a few glam touches — be repurposed outside. Maybe a trip to local thrift stores, Ikea, Cost Plus, Costco and Target is in order.  Remember, style and substance along with unusual activities can transform a simple gathering into the Best Summer Party Ever.

Here are suggestions to get your
glamping started:

1) It’s glamping, so you’ve got to have a tent or a tent-like enclosure to define a party-mood space. You can dust off that extra-large tent that’s been in your garage for years, or assemble a series of pop-up canopies decorated with fabric swaths to create a breezy gazebo structure. There’s always the “tie a rope between tall trees and create tipi-like structures” approach as well. Depending on your gathering, you may want just one main party space or a series of rooms. Will there be a food tent? Lounge tent? Movie tent? Sleeping tent? Even for the budget-minded, this is one item you may want to rent since it’s the main piece of infrastructure. You might want to think beyond traditional canvas tents; consider inflatable bubble tents, which are all the rage in the eco-glamping community. Based in Arizona, Bubble Huts (bubblehuts.com) offers a selection of see-through structures so you can feel like you are outside…even when you are technically inside.

2) Furnishings: From mud-cloth to frills, from velvety to plush — pillows of all sizes and shapes will make your backyard event even glampier. Woven rugs add earthy textures to the landscape. Colorful rugs beckon guests to sit, stretch out and relax among friends. Low tables encourage lounging.

3) Eating spaces can be tricky. How formal or casual is the event? Simple dishware can be easier to clean up. Will there be a sit-down area or buffet line? Maybe food will be sprinkled throughout various tables and tents? Prepare food in advance so you’re not stuck behind a grill the entire party. Finger foods are perfect. Of course, what’s a camping dessert without the obligatory s’mores? Use dark chocolate, trendy flavored marshmallows and toast over your fire pit.

4) Lighting: The event will probably incorporate dusk and nighttime — it’s camping! Light up the Tiki torches and string twinkly white lights around the landscape. Strategically position camping lanterns to set the mood. Opt for flameless candles. Solar-powered wine-bottle lights cast a rosy golden glow after the sun goes down. Create a kaleidoscope of color with Bliss Lights laser projections (blisslights.com), which fling a whirl of rainbow colors onto trees, fences and outdoor walls.

5) Forgo the candles and bug spray, and glam up your insect deterrent. The Mosquito Repellent DecoShield Lantern (decoshield.com) uses pleasant-smelling all-natural essential oils and repels mosquitos and biting flies within a 300-square-foot space. It’s encased in a stylish cover and also serves as a lantern, casting a soft glow.

6) The details: As with all creative endeavors, the devil is in the details. Arrange cut flowers in mason jars. Incorporate antique sculptures and colorful swaths of flowy scarves and other materials, lacy hangings and art weavings. Possibilities are endless.

7) But in the end, it’s the shared activities that will make your party. Have friends bring over their guitars, ukuleles, bongos and keyboards for an impromptu jam session. If it’s warm, splurge on a three-person adult-size inflatable pool (from Target) and take turns. Oversized Jenga and Connect Four seem more fun outdoors. But hands down, watching a movie on a large outdoor screen — maybe a GPX projection screen — while you are snuggled up in a sleeping bag with your kids or cozying up to your sweetie could be the ultimate in backyard glamping. Now, the big decision: Which movie will you watch?

            B.R.

The Beefless Summer

Save the planet and your taste buds by grilling veggies and topping them with dressings and marinades.

It’s officially summer, which in Southern California (and most of America) means outdoor activities. The beach, the park, the public pool and, of course, the backyard. This is the season when entertaining officially moves outside.

But lately, especially here in California, summer outdoor activities have faced a number of obstacles. Though we’ve had a record wet spring, I am bracing for a repeat of last year’s extreme heat, which drove me back inside more than once. A sky full of smoke from wild fires, which experts warn will become the new normal, also kept me in. And all that rainwater has produced an unusually large crop of mosquitos, which made hanging outside in the cool dusk — prime BBQ hours — miserable and hazardous. But even if none of those elements keep you inside this summer, these environmental changes are going to force us to reevaluate our idea of summer fun.There is no doubt that climate change has altered our environment. That I can see it in my lifetime is upsetting enough. What lies in store for my progeny is what keeps me up at night. Sure, your canvas tote bag and solar-powered phone charger are totally helping. But if you really want to make an impact, there is one significant thing you can do right now. 

Stop eating beef. 

By now, everyone is aware that factory farming is killing the planet. Numerous studies, international political movements and films have been highlighting the dangers for over a decade. (The 2008 film Food Inc. changed the way I sourced product at work.) There have been moderate attempts to offer planet-friendly alternatives to the masses, such as cage-free eggs and grass-fed meat. Chefs are creating plant-based menus, and the faux “Impossible Burger” is available from the best white-tableclothed joint to Burger King. But we still drool at the first whiff of charring meat. I’m fairly convinced that the Char Boy burger joint in my neighborhood doesn’t need to vent its grill smoke onto the street — but doing so is advertising genius. 

What will it take to get Americans to lay off cows? Perhaps the best incentive is fear of planetary extinction. 

While the “they’re coming for our hamburgers” rhetoric has been used as fodder for the anti–Green New Deal faction (the deal that, by the way, mentions nothing about beef), it is true that switching to a plant-focused diet is the single biggest thing we can do to lower greenhouse-gas emissions. In fact, of the four most important changes humans can make — eat plants, limit air travel, go car-free and have smaller families — giving up meat will have the largest impact, and it is the only one I am readily able to do. (Reminder — broccoli is cheaper than a Tesla.)

A recent National Academy of Sciences study on the environmental impact of animal foods looked at five of the most consumed animal products — beef, dairy, pork, poultry and eggs. It makes perfect sense that beef, the largest of the factory-farmed animals, is 10 times more damaging to the planet than other animal foods we consume. Beef production is responsible for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting out red meat would do more for the planet than abandoning cars. It would also be easier and faster. (Which is a relief, because I love driving my manual transmission way more than I love beef.)

Although total livestock is the largest land user worldwide, the beef production uses 28 times more land, and 11 times more water, than each of the other four animal products. This means that you don’t even need to go as far as veganism to make an impact. Although, when compared to plant food production, beef uses 160 times more land, and creates 11 times the emissions. And because we live in a drought-familiar part of the country, you might find it interesting that one pound of beef requires 2,400 gallons of water, while one pound of wheat uses a mere 25 gallons. So, yeah, thanks for putting that brick in your toilet tank and turning off the faucet while you brush, but how ’bout you lay off the carne asada this weekend? It will save more water than a year of skipped showers.

I know. It’s grilling season. And grilling is as ’Merican as hamburger. And while I am encouraging you to lay off meat completely, I will settle for a temporary abstention from beef. To facilitate this, I am offering some suggestions for beef-free grilling that will not only make your smoke-choked, mosquito-infested barbeque a success, they will also help stem the tide of global warming.

My biggest peeve regarding vegetarianism is the compulsion many feel to make it seem like meat. Plants taste good as they are, and to disguise them does Mother Nature a disservice. Literally anything can be grilled, and everything is improved with the taste of the grill. Vegetable grilling is not rocket science, and there are a plethora of ideas in cookbooks and on the Internet for you to sift through. I have rounded up some of my favorites, with the caveat that you can easily create your own versions. I routinely grill all kinds of vegetables in the summer — not just the standard Portobello mushrooms and corn (which are perfect and delicious). Try quartered cauliflower, skewered Brussels sprouts, sliced winter squash, asparagus spears (place them perpendicular to the grill slats!), whole cherry tomatoes, hearts of romaine or radicchio and avocados (halved and pitted with skin on). Once the veggies are charred, they can be tossed with a dressing, chopped and stuffed into flatbread or sandwiched between buns.

Giving up meat altogether would be the ideal. But asking 400 million people to go meatless without some sort of immediate incentive (because it’s obvious that saving the planet is not enough of a motivator) is going to be challenging. What I will ask, though, is for you to give up red meat, at least a couple days a week. By doing this, you can still significantly reduce your carbon footprint.


GRILLED VEGETABLE DRESSINGS AND MARINADES

All of these marinades are prepared by simply mixing all the ingredients together and macerating with your chosen vegetables for about 1 hour before grilling. When the veggies hit the grill, cook them until they are marked and a little charred. No need to check internal temperatures! Times will vary depending on the vegetables, but nothing will take longer than five to 10 minutes. You can grill veggies individually, lock them into a grilling basket or thread them on skewers. It’s easier, healthier and more conscience-soothing than a steak ever was.


Indian Curried Yogurt Marinade
Try this with quartered red onion, cauliflower, halved new potatoes, green beans and pumpkin. It’s great for chicken too. Scoop it up with some garlic naan.

Ingredients
2 cups plain yogurt
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 to 3 tablespoons grated ginger
3 tablespoons tandoori or garam masala spice blend
¼ cup coconut or canola oil


Middle-Eastern Pomegranate Marinade
Try this with halved parsnips, turnips, carrots, romaine hearts or summer squash.  Not bad with lamb either. Serve with some grilled pita and fresh hummus.

Ingredients
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup pomegranate juice
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 chopped shallot
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of sea salt


Thai Green Curry Marinade
Try this with red or yellow bell peppers, zucchini, whole green onions, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus and wedged green or Savoy cabbage. Toss them into a dish of noodles or over a bowl of rice. It’s also great for shrimp.


Ingredients
1 cup coconut milk
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons coconut or canola oil
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
2 to 4 tablespoons green curry paste


Provençal Marinade
Perfect for zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, fennel and artichokes. Chop them and layer onto a grilled flatbread, then top with goat cheese for a decadent summer pizza.


Ingredients
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon prepared pesto
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (or ½ tablespoon each of thyme, oregano, rosemary, lavender)


Soy Balsamic Marinade
Use this for summer squash, eggplant, whole baby bok choy, green onions, broccoli and carrots. It’s also perfect for your favorite firm fish filet. Finish with fresh chopped cilantro and black sesame seeds.


Ingredients
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, minced


Sesame Peanut Marinade
Try with bok choy, cauliflower, whole small or halved large carrots, parsnips, zucchini, sweet potatoes and even pineapple wheels. Terrific on pork too.


Ingredients
¼ cup peanut butter
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 to 2 tablespoons chili garlic sauce or Sriracha


Spicy Marinade for Tropical Fruit
Try this marinade for mango, pineapple, kiwi and bananas, firm melons and cucumbers. Then serve the finished fruits over cool sorbet with a coconut macaroon.


Ingredients
½ cup maple syrup
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon cayenne


Honey Port Marinade for…
Try this with whole figs, peaches, plums, pears and, when the season arrives in the fall, persimmons. Spoon over vanilla ice cream, or into a crispy meringue cup.


Ingredients
1 cup Port wine
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cardamom

Outdoor Fitness

Stadium Fitness promises to train you “where legends have played.”

It’s 5:55 a.m. on an overcast Friday in late May and I’m standing outside the entrance of the venerable Rose Bowl stadium in the Arroyo Seco. Looking around, I notice that the crowds of recreational runners and bikers so common on the weekends are nowhere to be found. It’s still and quiet. I turn back toward the stadium and think about its history: how it has been home to 105 New Year’s Day post-season collegiate football contests; how A-list musical acts, from Journey and Depeche Mode in the ’80s to Taylor Swift and Beyoncé in recent years, have performed here. I think of all the events I’ve personally attended: AmericaFest, the Independence Day fireworks extravaganza, UCLA football games, the longstanding annual Turkey Tussle game between Pasadena and Muir high schools, end-of-year American Youth Soccer Organization presentations, Billy Graham’s last Southern California crusade, in 2004. But this morning, I’m not here as a spectator. I’m here as a participant in what can only be considered an exceptional workout opportunity: In five minutes, I will be inside the Rose Bowl, running 77 stairs to the top of the stadium alongside other early risers who have made their way here for a 6 a.m. workout.   

I like the idea of exercising outside again, especially now that the days are warmer and longer. Running on the three-mile loop that surrounds the Rose Bowl used to be part of my regular routine, but lately my workouts — primarily weights and fitness classes — have been inside the gym. As I wait for the stadium gate to be unlocked, I’m not 100 percent sure what I’ll be doing this morning besides scaling the stairs. But I’m excited; I love new athletic challenges. Who will be in this early–morning session, I wonder. Marathon runners? Elite athletes? I soon find out that it’s a lot of regular folk who are just interested in staying healthy in a very cool setting.

David Liston, the founder and co-owner of Stadium Fitness, has a unique arrangement with the Rose Bowl Operating Company that has allowed him to bring health and wellness to the community, as well as the bowl’s own employees, since 2009. He greets me warmly at the gate and tells me to head into the stadium. If you’ve never done it, I recommend walking into a completely empty Rose Bowl. It’s a bit of a cinematic moment, heading through the dark tunnel and emerging into the early morning light (even on this gray day) to be greeted by the historic green field that has seen so many contests and the nearly 91,000 seats that surround it. “You should see it when it’s clear and the sun is just coming up,” he tells me.

There are about 16 of us this morning and we come in a wide range of ages. Liston is particularly proud of Bernie, 75, the group’s senior member, who has been maintaining her fitness by working out in the stadium three times a week for years.

Before I even begin, Liston asks me what kind of physical activity I already do, gauging my fitness level. I tell him about my gym repertoire and about the triathlons and half-marathons I’ve done in the past. Confident that I can handle a lap around the perimeter of the field, he sends me off with the other folks doing the same. Liston doesn’t lead a class in the traditional sense; rather, he works out each of his clients according to their ability, giving what he calls “individual workouts in a group setting.”

When I return, warmed up and eager for the next challenge, he asks me if I’m ready for some stairs. I nod enthusiastically. My next assignment is to run — four times and row by row — up the 77 steps that lead to the top of the stadium and back down again. In a race with myself, I bound up the stairs, making great progress…until I reach the 65th step. That’s when my legs start burning from the exertion, slowing me down to a walk-run pace. It’s not enough to make me stop, though. I make it to the top, feeling triumphant, before heading down for round two. By the time I reach the bottom, my legs have recovered enough for me to begin sprinting up the next row. Each time, I slow at stair 65. But I make it, and I feel good.

It turns out that Stadium Fitness workouts aren’t just about running. For the next hour, I alternate between stair sets and other moves that target my arms, legs and core: lunges, bicep curls, triceps dips and pushups. After each exercise, Liston checks in with me: “How do you feel?” “How are the legs?” “Ready to run the stairs again?”

Liston began his career as a seventh-grade social studies teacher in his native Massachusetts before arriving in Pasadena in 1996 to work with his brother, who was already involved in fitness. It’s easy to see that he still loves teaching. During the course of the hour, Liston connects with all his clients, not just me. He remembers each one’s workout goals, ailments and what’s going on in their lives. “I try to ‘touch’ everyone three times an hour. I can have multiple conversations going on at the same time. My wife says I would be a good air-traffic controller,” he says with a laugh.

Although we’re not down on the field today — the South Korean boy band BTS recently performed and, as a result, new sod has been laid  — Liston says that about 75 percent of the time his groups are down there running sprints and “doing a lot of fun group exercise stuff” such as partner and running exercises, relay races and agility training. Stadium Fitness participants work out in the locker room on occasion, particularly in the winter. “If it’s 39 degrees [outside] everyone is like, ‘Can we please start inside?’” he says. They also stay inside when it rains.

Kids as young as 11 have worked out with Stadium Fitness — Liston accepts youth based on their maturity level — but the youngest average about 12 or 13, he says. Particularly in the summer, “we encourage people to bring their kids to the 8:30 a.m. class,” he says. The 6 a.m. class I am sampling is for people, like me, who have to go to work.

The hour goes by quickly and, when it’s over, I ask Liston what makes his workouts so popular. “For most people, exercise has to be fun for them to do it on a regular basis,” he says. “Eighty percent of exercise is getting to the place to do the exercise. It’s easier to let someone tell you what to do.”


Stadium Fitness
(626) 232-6900 • stadiumfitness.com
Classes are ongoing and meet Mondays at 6 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.;
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6 and 6:30 p.m.; Wednesdays and Fridays, 6
and 8:30 a.m.;

Single class $25/Student $18
10-Class Pack ($22/class): $220
24-Class Pack ($16.63/class): $399
1-month unlimited: $150
Other pricing available


Boot Camp Pasadena

A couple of days before I ran the stairs with Stadium Fitness, I sampled a 5:45 a.m. class with Boot Camp Pasadena, another early-morning group-exercise business that has been putting people through their paces for a decade.

Founder Stephen Cooper, a personal trainer with nearly 30 years of experience, leads all the early-morning and early-evening (6 p.m.) classes, which take place Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday near the Pasadena-Altadena border. (Contact him for details.) Despite what the name implies, there’s no military-style training at Boot Camp Pasadena. You won’t find Cooper wearing camouflage or barking instructions. His approach is decidedly low-key and he considers his clients friends, not soldiers. “I don’t think instructors have to yell to be effective,” he says.

Cooper touts BCP as a toning and fat-burning program. There’s no running of stairs, just some sprints, along with targeted muscle work using TRX suspension training, medicine balls, kettle bells and boxing, among other things. “People love the stress release of boxing,” Cooper says, “and some people have a lot of stress!”

His clients, who are primarily in their 30s to 50s, come to Boot Camp Pasadena not only because they want accountability in their workouts and wouldn’t necessarily exercise on their own but because it’s a friendly environment where people of different fitness levels can work out together. There’s no competition among the participants; in fact, they encourage one another. “They like being in the group because there’s camaraderie,” he says.

Cooper wants his clients to make their workouts a regular part of their lives, and a number of them have been with him almost from the beginning. “I can tell when it clicks with people; for a while they’re hoping that some kind of fad diet is going to help them lose the weight or change them dramatically,” he says. “It takes them a while to realize, ‘Okay, this is a serious commitment, it’s a habit; once they realize that, they’re calmer and they see the payoff.”

Like Stadium Fitness’ Liston, Cooper prides himself on knowing his clients’ needs. It’s that personal touch, he says, that keeps bringing people back.

            N.H.


Boot Camp Pasadena
(626) 509-9958 • bootcamppasadena.com
Classes are ongoing and meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays or Tuesdays and Thursdays:
Mornings: 5:45 to 6:30
Evenings: 6 to 6:45
One-time rate: $18–$20 per class
Monthly rates: $135–$175

A Family Affair

The California Cactus Center nurtures the botanical wonders of cacti and succulents along with familial bonds.

When the six Thongthiraj children were growing up in Pasadena in the 1970s, going to Disneyland was the high point of their summer break. But before the daughters could get into the car for a pricey day with Mickey and Minnie, they were told they needed to contribute to the family business. “Our father insisted that in order for us to go, we needed to propagate 1,000 flats of plants,” Arree recalls of her childhood with a laugh. “And we always managed to do that before the summer ended. He was very smart that way. That project certainly kept us busy and out of trouble.”

Indeed, keeping busy has long been a family affair at the California Cactus Center, which has been at its original East Pasadena home since it opened in 1976 with a simple setup — just a couple of benches, a gravel floor and a modest selection of home-propagated plants. Today, five of six daughters are actively involved in the day-to-day workings at the nursery known internationally for all things cacti and succulents. With 23 additional acres of propagation facilities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the center specializes in rare and hard-to-find plants with specimens from all over the world.

Away from the buzz of busy Rosemead Boulevard, a steady stream of customers wanders among rows of sculptural exotic plants that are often weird, fuzzy, prickly, knobby and mesmerizing. The center was a natural offshoot of the beloved hobby of Arree’s father, Zhalermwudh, who, along with wife Maleenee, immigrated from Thailand in the 1950s. He had fallen under the spell of desert cacti and succulents in his adopted country so he started to investigate species, perfect propagation techniques and learn everything he could about these plants — long before the Internet made such research easy.

In the 1960s, Zhalermwudh dove deep into his botanical fascination while working as an X-ray technician at Huntington Hospital. Back then, IVs came in plastic bottles, not bags, and Arree recalls her father recycling numerous IV bottles at home. “He’d cut the corners off the bottoms and make tiny little pots,” she says. Through trial and error, he developed his own soil recipe — the same popular mixture the nursery sells today.

Growing up, the sisters carefully studied how their father made cuttings from the plants he bought, positioned them in the tiny plastic IV pots and tended them as they grew and flourished. Plants took over the backyard where the Thongthiraj sisters received their horticultural education — despite the occasional poke, scrape and scratch. The rest of the family caught Zhalermwudh’s cacti and succulent bug, taking frequent trips to local deserts where they expanded their knowledge by seeing these plants in their native habitat. “The Huntington Garden was also our playground,” adds Arree. “We went there practically every weekend, spending hours in their desert garden.”

While Zhalermwudh taught his girls about plant names, propagation techniques and plant care, mother Maleenee “taught us how to pot and arrange them,” says Arree, who continues in that artistic vein, offering design services for customers who want to integrate these drought-tolerant plants into their yards and homes or businesses. “I do a lot of on-spot design, especially for people who have just purchased a house,” she says.

Indeed, the demand for California Cactus Center plants is impressive. You’ll find them at numerous L.A. Department of Water and Power stations, a SoCal Google campus, Huntington Gardens, UC Riverside, Claremont College and even Disneyland. Celebrity clients include Martha Stewart, Paul Weller, Diane Keaton, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, to name just a few.

Yet for some clients, unconvinced at first, Arree needs to nurture their appreciation of cacti. (“People think they are just thorny, but that’s not true.”) She explains why they have become prized garden additions: “They really appreciate that they are low maintenance and can look good all year round. Plus they want the most they can get out of their money; they want longevity, which these plants offer,” she says. “Rather than spending weekly or biweekly on flowers, they know they can get a cactus or succulent and it will last — you don’t have to replace it all the time.”

With a degree in art, Arree encourages clients to consider cacti and succulents as an art form on their own, especially when appropriately paired with others in tasteful containers. “The plant is the art piece and the pot is the frame,” she says, adding that as the plant grows, its changes can be a form of “performance art. No plant is ever going to stay the same size, right?”

There are rows of artful displays of well-curated plants with delightful shapes and textures in stylish bowls and dishes; no wonder these mini-gardens are in high demand as wedding centerpieces, party favors or gifts for birthdays, showers and other celebrations. There is also a selection of local pottery, including a series crafted by a NASA scientist who embeds fossil prints on the sides of his amber-and-rust-colored creations.

As she leads a visitor on a tour, Arree points out selections that are rare and impressive, including two that are more than 100 years old: a Pachypodium succulentum  from South Africa and a desert rose (Adenium obesum) sporting gorgeous pink blooms. There are frilly-shaped crested euphorbias (created by a mutation) and the sea urchin–shaped Euphorbia obesa, commonly known as the baseball cactus (which is special to the family since it was one of the first specimens in Zhalermwudh’s collection).

This slow-growing cactus with no needles requires a delicate procedure to fertilize the female flowers in order to produce seeds — a task the Thongthiraj girls learned at an early age. Arree would use a horsehair brush to gather the pollen on the male flowers and gently deposit the powdery substance onto the female flowers. “We made cones out of window screen material and placed them on top of the female flowers in the summertime,” she says. When the heat caused the seed pods to finally burst open, she adds, there was a “popcorn-like noise all over the place. It was pretty fun and very neat.”

These days, Arree’s sister Sue handles propagation duties at the nursery. She’s often behind her work table, prepping containers, observing the progress on certain youngsters and carefully extracting and cultivating small offspring. Cuttings are the easiest way to propagate; seeds can take up to two years to germinate.

Sue’s hands hold the descendants of her father’s collection. Many plants at the center can be directly traced back to the Thongthiraj home, whether they were propagated via seed dispersal or cuttings. “My father had a personal goal of propagating a million golden barrels from seed,” she says, as she shows a selection of tiny seeds collected from the cactus flowers of Echinocactus grusonii.

Zhalermwudh did not achieve that benchmark during his lifetime; Arree and Sue roughly calculate that he got to about 500,000 before he passed away in 1998. (You can see 550 of Zhalermwudh’s golden barrel descendants at the Getty Center.)

While friction is common in any family business, Arree and her siblings have managed to keep drama down while improving on and expanding their father’s dream. Malinee Romero captains the center’s popular video channel, posting short tutorial videos on all aspects of care of cacti and succulents along with design tips. Sister Molly oversees the business side; and even Took Took, an English professor at Pasadena City College, rolls up her sleeves at the center during school breaks. Along with the oldest sister, Smanjai, the siblings all care for their 87-year-old mother.

To keep the business as a family endeavor, 10-year-old Evanlee, Arree’s nephew and the sisters’ only offspring, has been coming to the nursery to learn the secrets of succulents and cacti. “We’d like very much to continue as a family business, so we are in the process of grooming him,” says Arree with a sparkle in her eye. Like the generation before him, the youngster is learning the art of propagation (mainly from his Aunt Sue) along with all the other horticultural complexities. Fortunately for him, he won’t be required to propagate 1,000 flats as his aunties had to do.

Arree says her father’s presence is still felt every day as she walks past the giant tree aloe from South Africa (Aloe bainseii) that graces the outside of the business along with a Bombax ellipticum, better known as a shaving brush tree. “This is the largest aloe tree you’ll ever see,” she says of the center’s stately unofficial landmark — originally planted by her father. “He wanted to make sure we would be always be taken care of; that’s why he created this business for us.” 

 


California Cactus Center is located at 216 Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena. Hours are
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday.
Call (626) 795-2788 or visit cactuscenter.com.

Carson Valley, Nevada

Carson Valley, Nevada, is a world away from city life, a wild place where mustangs and raptors reign, a place where freedom is just another word for gliding silently through sapphire skies. The Old West lives on in Carson Valley, just 12 miles east of South Lake Tahoe; it lies at the base of the Sierra Nevada, just south of Carson City, named for the 19th-century frontiersman Kit Carson. It’s still a land ripe for discovery, boasting natural charms and historic sites, including Nevada’s oldest saloon and a resort with hot springs that opened 150 years ago.

Shots Box

The craft cocktail renaissance is, undeniably, sweeping the nation. Cocktails with historic pedigrees are fashionable again. But not everyone has the time nor the inclination to visit bar after bar to find the best cocktail. And most of us are not proficient bartenders at home. With Shots Box, that has changed.

Shots Box is a SoCal–based subscription service that delivers 10 different spirits (by the shot, typically 1.5 ounces) to your door so you can experiment at home. The real expense of cocktails is always the liquor. Here, the liquor and recipe cards are brought to you, and all you need do is get the remaining ingredients to make 10 wildly different cocktails. “I launched Shots Box because of my passion for home-brewing and craft spirits. I’m driven by success and the luxury of simplicity,” says founder J.C. Stock, who bills Shots Box as “the only craft sampling club in the world.”

The cost is $39.99 a month, which comes out to $4 per cocktail. All spirits range from mid-shelf to top-shelf; the box I received contained a wide variety, including Death’s Door Gin from Wisconsin, Montana Honey Moonshine and Adelaide’s Dreamsicle Coconut Liqueur from Nebraska. The recipes are not complex, most using just four ingredients. The shipment also includes information about where the spirit was distilled, tasting notes and info about the distillery via a QR code on each card. You can also purchase full-size bottles directly from ShotsBox.com when you find the cocktail you love. Through this simple service, the luxury of home-cocktail connoisseurship becomes a snap.

Auto-Theater Season

With the longest day of the year landing on June 21, the school year winding to a close and, of course, Father’s Day (June 16), the National Day Calendar for June is (mostly) all about summer. To help relieve the stress of triple-digit temperatures, this month’s calendar thoughtfully includes National Hydration Day (June 23), National Iced Tea Day (June 10) and National Bomb Pop Day (June 27 — Bomb Pops are those red, white and blue rocket-shaped popsicles). Several celebrations (more than is necessary, frankly) revolve around ice cream, including National Ice Cream Soda Day and National Vanilla Milkshake Day (both wrestling for attention on June 20 as best ice creamy drink), National Chocolate Ice Cream Day (June 7), National Rocky Road Day (June 2) and National Ice Cream Cake Day (June 27). If you’re not into sweets, the calendar has you covered with National Sunglasses Day (June 27) and National Flip Flop Day (June 14).  All signs point to a season of sweating outdoors. 

Another summer outdoor activity gets its due this month with National Drive-In Movie Day, coming to a theater near you on June 6. This revelation had me swooning in a nostalgic stupor for a couple of hours, remembering all my personal drive-in moments.  As a kid, the drive-in was a regular summer weekend outing. Dressed in my PJs, I’d screw around in the adjoining playground, then settle into the backseat with my sleeping bag and pillow to watch a movie that was certainly less interesting than the fact that I was out in public in my PJs. In high school, the drive-in was the place to realize all our American teenage dreams. Cheap movies (or free, if we were willing to hide in the trunk), junk food, beer and boys — all far from the watchful eyes of adults. Once, in high school, we went in my convertible Volkswagen Thing (my first car — a classic), with the top down, to see An American Werewolf in London.  We were so captivated by the film that we forgot that the region was under attack from fruit flies and therefore subject to nightly spraying of malathion by pesticide-wielding helicopters. I’m fairly certain there were no ill effects. (I mean, my kids have gills, but that’s normal, right?) One of the first dates I had with my husband was at a drive-in, in a car he borrowed from his job at the university library. (Not sure if the loan was sanctioned.) I think the movie was Young Sherlock Holmes, though to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to the film.

I love the history of the drive-in, because it’s all about a son pleasing his mother. Richard Hollingshead, sales manager of Whiz Auto Products, was a movie fan, but his mother was too large to sit comfortably in theater seats. His experiments in comfort seating led to a projector mounted on the hood of the family car, illuminating a sheet tied between two trees in the yard. That led to a patented idea, and the first “Park-In” theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, on June 6, 1933.

Hollingshead’s first theater, whose slogan was “The whole family is welcome, regardless of how noisy the children are,” had a 40-by-50-foot screen and 400 car slots, with ramps at different heights so every car had a clear view. The soundtrack was initially played on three RCA Victor speakers mounted near the screen, which sounded as bad as you’d think it did. Several other “Auto-Theaters” sprang up, but it was not until the 1940s, when the in-car speaker was developed, that the renamed “Drive-In” theater really took off.  By the late ’50s there were 4,000 drive-ins across the United States. 

The first film shown at Hollingshead’s drive-in was Wives Beware, a British film about a man who faked amnesia so he could screw around on his wife. Not exactly Academy Award material, despite having run in theaters for one week (but not a second more). And that was the quality of film historically offered at the drive-in. They showed strictly B-movies, because Hollywood’s prime material was reserved for theaters that could screen a film several times a day, not just once after dark. To help boost attendance, the drive-ins started offering X-rated films too, which helped keep many afloat into the late ’60s.  But by then, with the advent of television, and then VCRs, the drive-in culture slowly disappeared. 

In California we had our first drive-in in 1938, and at the height of the trend there were 220 across the state. Today there are about 350 still operating in the United States, with 16 here in California, thanks to an aging population of car-culture kids and an obsession with nostalgia.  Several have recently been reopened and refurbished with digital projection, which makes first-run movies available faster and easier. No more speakers, though. The soundtrack is broadcast via FM radio. (If you no longer have one of those, most theaters will rent you one.) 

Sure, open-air movie screenings are all over the place now, and I have enjoyed many over the years. Movies outside will always be a little magical. And a community coming together in a park to share a beloved classic over picnic dinners is delightful. But these are very popular events, and thus super-crowded. And when people start encroaching on my picnic blanket, I am no longer having fun. For me, the drive-in is the perfect alternative. Watching a movie outdoors, private seating that no one will step on, a picnic dinner (or classic snack-bar food, of course) and my sweetheart — it’s the perfect summer evening outing. 

Also, when I inevitably fall asleep halfway through the film, I can simply recline the seat.

FEAR OF ZIPPING

Maybe it was because of what happened on a rainy late afternoon many years ago driving in the hills near the Santa Barbara Mission in my Triumph sports car, seeing the lovely twinkling lights of oil derricks in the distance as the sun set into the ocean. Noticing that my downhill speed was too high I put my foot on the brake but it barely slowed, and as the car barreled into a turn I knew two things: I couldn’t make the turn and the physics of my predicament would take me plunging down a steep hillside that I doubted I’d walk away from. But luck was with me and instead of being in free fall I hit a high embankment and my tire blew. I staggered from the car and looked down at what I had barely avoided. Fortunate me, but then like a perverse miracle, I suddenly developed a fear of heights.

Me, one of the founding members of Dorsey High School’s Flying Club! I was the young man who couldn’t wait to squeeze into a Piper Cub with the colorblind Mr. Fieldsman who taught driver’s ed during school hours but took us flying every Thursday after school. We were a sight, the little Jewish dude and his many black students getting into small planes of his friends, and away we went — soaring to airports around Southern California. All of that was lost to me after that near-disastrous car accident, and since then I’m inclined to stay firmly on the ground. A long flight I endure, but don’t enjoy turbulence that reminds me I’m more than 3,000 feet above the ground.

Then I got the call from Arroyo Monthly for an exciting assignment to write about the Ziplines at Pacific Crest in Wrightwood. Suddenly, I was Scottie in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, trying to find his balance on a stepladder and almost fainting. Visiting the ziplines’ website had my heart racing as I saw those taut cable lines stretching endlessly along mountain passes that were as alluring as they were daunting for a man with my propensity for acrophobia. 

Then I showed this to Jinghuan, my wife and personal trainer, who regards running the Boston Marathon on a stress fracture as an opportunity for character building. She insisted I had nothing to fear, that all I needed to do was educate myself and I’d be fine. 

I took her advice and did due-diligence research until I was ready to strap myself into the rig. I fervently convinced myself that ziplining was just as safe as riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland, and a hell of a lot more fun. I wanted to believe that I could jump from a high platform 80 feet above ground and be chill about it. That I could enjoy leaping into space and rolling at up to 55 miles an hour more than 100 feet about the ground, surrounded by a lush canopy of pines and assisted by an enthusiastically friendly staff who are as diligent about safety as I am paranoid about heights. I could only conclude that my fear was something the zipline crew at Pacific Crest had to be used to and knew how to reassure the faint of heart that we wouldn’t splat against a tree, Daffy Duck–style.

On an early Sunday morning after Jinghuan’s short 10-mile run, we got the kids together and started the drive to Wrightwood. It was a pleasant one, a beautiful lunar-looking landscape along the 138 Freeway, and the mysteries of orchards with Korean Hangul script dotting the highway that Jinghuan puzzled over.   

I had never visited Wrightwood before, though my brother had a cabin there for many years. It was a charming town nestled against the slope of a pine-dense mountain range. When we reached Ziplines at Pacific Crest the young crew was ready for us, though the staff seemed in constant motion, some rigging folks into various harnesses and doing various safety checks. When they weighed me I discovered that I was too heavy for their safety regulations. I was crestfallen — or at least I pulled it off as though I was — and Sammy, my 11-year stepson, stepped up and was raring to go in a way that my false bravado couldn’t come close to.

While they were gearing up and departing in the grim black Pacific Crest van to the ziplines, I searched for a good place to hang out with Colette, our 3-year-old girl, and I found The Village Grind. The Village Grind is an extremely charming multipurpose restaurant, bar, coffeehouse, art colony and outdoor music venue. The Village Grind is so cool and charming that I’m seriously thinking we need to bribe them to relocate to Altadena. 

Jinghuan and Sammy returned from their supposed 90-minute zipline tour about two-and-a-half hours later, exhausted but thrilled. Jinghuan had much to say about the adventure:

The zipline rides were just as I had imagined and seen on TV. You wear a helmet, gloves and a harness with ropes and hooks; you go on a ride to the top of a mountain and zipline down from one side to the other. We were a party of eight tourists, with [brand-new] nicknames like Birthday Boy, Pineapple and Happy. I was, of course, Mom, and the last one holding the line.

The tour we signed up for had six ziplines and a free fall [rappel to the ground]. We started with a short line and the length and fun increased with each one. The heroes were the guides — they were extremely patient, gave clear directions about what to do and what not to do (e.g. to slow down, just gently tap the top of the zipline and don’t grab it hard. It’s called “pet the cat,” and do not try to strangle it!). Our guides, Marisa and Sarah, were relaxed, helpful and always giving everyone encouragement.

Neither Sammy nor I had much fear going on the zipline at all. They didn’t feel very long, nor risky. We felt in control the entire time. At each “stop,” which is essentially a small platform made of wood planks, we gathered the group together and waited for others; the platform was so small that the group had to squeeze in, which made you on high alert at all times just so you didn’t fall off the platform. It was a great chance to take in the gorgeous view of the SoCal mountains and fault line. Trees were all down below us; from afar, you see nothing but more mountains and snow on top of them. The air was clean and crisp. We were happy to be wearing jackets and not just a T-shirt.

The only part where everyone had the most fear was the free fall. You were tied to the zipline still, but were supposed to jump off a tree platform. All my life, I had dreams of adventures such as bungee jumping, wind surfing, sky diving and rock climbing in Yosemite, which all involved great heights and some form of free falls, so I thought I was totally prepared. Everyone ahead of me had some fearful moment, but all jumped beautifully, including my 11-year-old, who had told me, “Mom, my legs are trembling!” I thought, ‘‘Hmmmm, I must be the only one who isn’t feeling terror.’’

I was wrong. The moment I stepped to the edge of the platform, I was seized by fear. Holy smokes, am I really going to jump off this platform? It looks like 10 stories! What’s it going to feel like? Is my heart going to jump out of my lungs? How long am I going to be free falling? All these thoughts were racing in my head, while the rest of the crew was chanting, “Do it, Mom! Do it!”

I inched forward. Half of my feet were off the platform. I thought, what the hell, and gave it a gentle jump. Well, that wasn’t successful. My “jump” was way too gentle. I landed on my butt on the platform. I laughed so hard that my fear melted away. Our third guide, Ben, kindly asked if I was okay. I said yes and wished he would just give me a big push off the platform. That would’ve been better. The chanting from the crew grew louder: “Do it, Mom! Do it!”

I stood up and embraced all my fears. Next thing I knew, I was flying down… I didn’t dive too far before the rope pulled me up again and I started to bounce in the sky. I saw only trees, beautiful trees around me. It was a moment of joy, tranquility and peace before I landed in the arms of our guide and the crew erupted in cheers. Birthday Boy teased me, “Oh, I saw you wanted to go, but not the legs!”

The last zipline was the longest, and the one where you had two parallel ziplines. Sammy and I were the mother-and-son team. I made sure our GoPro, courtesy of our friend, was recording, and off we went!

I thought for sure I’d be ziplining faster than my son, but not this time. By now, he’d already grown into a more deft zipliner, knowing how to angle his body for speed; three-quarters of the way in, he was still ahead of me, but I was catching up, possibly due to heavier weight. This is the only [Pacific Crest] zipline where you don’t have to slow down on your own — it had some kind of smart braking system. The lower we’d go, the higher the speed. I felt like we were about to crash into the end when there was a sudden stop, so forceful that I bounced back. Another line pulled us and made us stop. It ended so fast and I already wanted to do it all over again!

The high speeds, the views, the mediated recklessness of it all were intoxicating for them both, while I enjoyed the opportunity to drink a hoppy, mango-infused IPA at The Village Grind. It was a great day for us all, the high-speed offerings of Pacific Crest zipline adventures and the sedate pleasures of Wrightwood were about as perfect a Sunday morning as you could hope for.   


Ziplines at Pacific Crest is located at 6014 Park Dr., Wrightwood, about 68 miles northeast of Pasadena by car. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tours range from the 90-minute Quest tour, with four zips for $85 per person, to the Ultimate All-Day Adventure, with 15 zips as well as rappels, bridges, hikes and lunch for $209 per person. Book your tour by calling
(760) 705-1003 or visiting ziplinespc.com.

THE SEA LION IN SUMMER

Summer travel doesn’t have to mean getting on a plane and taking cattle-car coach if you’re looking for a dreamy destination far from your routine. Of course, it’s a cliché to say that Southern California boasts a wide variety of landscapes, from the mountains to the sea. For us aficionados of the stunning San Gabriel Mountains, a complete change of pace can be had a mere hour southwest of Pasadena, in one of the beach cities hugging the Pacific Ocean.

In Redondo Beach, the recently renovated Portofino Hotel & Marina offers four-star luxury, with 161 guest rooms overlooking the marina or the ocean beyond, where the only traffic noise comes not from cars but from California sea lions. (The hotel launched a “Save the Sea Lions” program, inviting guests to take home a plush sea-lion toy when they donate to Redondo’s SEA Lab for sick and injured sea lions, seals and otters.)

The Portofino is cloaked in “nautical-chic” décor, a crisp blue-and-white palette embellished with images of yachts, sea life and seascapes. The owner, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, prides itself on designing each of its 18 boutique properties in the U.S. and Canada around its unique identity, rather than imposing a uniform corporate style. That identity is partly foodie-driven; the hotel takes particular pride in its Baleen Kitchen restaurant, named after a kind of whale. Zagat declared Baleen one of the top 10 waterside restaurants in Los Angeles.

The chef de cuisine is Vasili Tavernakis, a graduate of Pasadena’s now-shuttered Le Cordon Bleu, who has plied his trade in upscale restaurants across Southern California, most recently at Manhattan Beach Post under the aegis of chef/co-owner David LeFevre, who was executive chef of The Water Grill in downtown L.A. when it scored a Michelin star. Tavernakis points to his Greek heritage as a source of culinary inspiration, but the truth is his worldview is much broader than that; indeed, one thing he shares with LeFevre is a love of travel. “Mine is very much a travel-inspired cuisine,” he says. “I’ve traveled quite a bit.” But don’t assume you’ll know what to expect — he tweaks the dishes to pepper his locally sourced, seasonal menus with surprises. “A good example is the Thai green curry,” he adds. “Most people want yellow curry with potatoes. But in the restaurant, I want everyone to have the opportunity to be educated: This is from the region, and these are the flavors to expect.” Other standouts include the beef stroganoff with housemade pappardelle, the cioppino and the lobster mac and cheese with truffle-parmesan crumbs. And the main dining room isn’t the only place to savor them — there’s a chef’s table and comfy private outdoor seating overlooking the marina.

Perhaps less evident is Portofino’s colorful history. It was founded in 1965 by one of the country’s rare women race-car drivers, Mary Davis, who lent her pioneering spirit to the Redondo Beach waterfront, spurring development there. The Portofino was California’s first hotel located in the center of a small-craft harbor, surrounded on three sides by water, according to the Daily Breeze. Davis named it for the Italian seaside resort town known for its super-yachts, but it became a particular draw for race-car drivers including Formula 1 Grand Prix winner Peter Revson, a scion of the Revlon family, who lived in one of Portofino’s 25 condos. In the 1970s, the Portofino was the destination of the five coast-to-coast car races known as the Cannonball Run. The event went on to inspire a TV series and three movies, including 1981’s Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett, filmed partly at the Portofino. Davis sold the property to the company that became Noble House in 1986. A year later, a huge storm destroyed the property and the new owner rebuilt it from scratch.

If you go, borrow one of the hotel’s free beach cruiser bikes for a spin up the coast or settle into a fireside seat in the grand Lobby Living Room or the Baleen Bar, where you can make your own Bloody Mary from 40 ingredients or chill to the tunes of an eclectic roster of local musicians. Or do what I did in a recent visit: Pour a glass of pinot and pull up a chair on your private balcony. Then listen to the haunting calls of sea lions as the moon dips into the Pacific. 


The Portofino Hotel & Marina is located at 260 Portofino Way, Redondo Beach. Summer rates range from $299 (plus tax) for standard guest rooms to $750 (plus tax) for the one-bedroom Ocean View Suites overlooking the Pacific, although the hotel also hosts a webpage with special offers and discounts for seniors and AAA or AARP members. Call (310) 379-8481 or visit hotelportofino.com.